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50 Years of Poetry International Book Club by Various (Various, 2017)

2017 marked the 50th anniversary of Poetry International, Southbank Centre's longest running festival. During this year's festival we held a book club looking at the work of 5 poets who have appeared at the festival throughout it's 50 years. We drew on the National Poetry Library's unique collection of recordings from the festival (which are available to listen to on CD in the library and will soon be available digitally) and looked at a poet from each decade of the festival:
1967-70s - Basil Bunting
1980s - Paul Muldoon
1990s  - Sonia Sanchez 
2000s - Tua Forsström
2010s  - Choman Hardi 

Introduction to Poetry International and the National Poetry Library's recordings

Amongst the audience for the first Poetry International gathering, which took place in July 1967, was London writer Iain Sinclair. The poets reading that evening were W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Giuseppe Ungaretti and Allen Ginsberg but Sinclair had come along to see the American poet Charles Olson.
Sinclair remembers: "Olson put himself in with the people. He sprawled across the aisle, wearing a dirty white suit". The young Sinclair offered the poet his seat; Olson refused to take it: "[He] preferred the space on the floor, not paying attention to incomers who were forced to negotiate a passage around his notable bulk." When Olson did get up to read, just before the interval, Sinclair writes: "It was an excitement, heart in mouth, to listen." 
Ted Hughes had initiated the idea for the festival as a response to the global polarisation of East and West during the Cold War, writing in his introduction to the 1967 brochure: "The idea of global unity is not new, but the absolute necessity of it has only just arrived, like a sudden radical alteration of the sun." Despite, or perhaps because he wasn’t fluent in any other language than English, Hughes firmly held the notion that poetry could be "a universal language... in which we can all hope to meet.".
Correspondences in the planning stages show interesting conversations and disagreements about what the festival might be trying to achieve. Hughes’s international focus made some worry that the events wouldn't sell (the poets would be too obscure) but in actual fact the festival was ultimately judged to be highly successful. It is noteworthy that no poets of colour were invited (the poet James Berry sent a letter of complaint: "I feel it morally wrong that the festival should have been called 'international', and unsatisfactory because of very important omissions.") and although an attempt was made to invite a female poet the final line-up featured no women. The other 1967 poets were Pablo Neruda, John Berryman, Hans Magnus Ezenberger, William Empson, Charles Olson, Yves Bonnefoy, Yehuda Amichai, Allen Ginsberg, Octavia Paz, Laurie Lee, William Empson and Patrick Kavanagh.
The festival has stayed at the South Bank since 1967 - generally happening every two years - and has attempted to stay in touch with Hughes's original concept of an international gathering to celebrate poetry's attempt at a universal language.  At its heart is the notion, so important to Hughes, and to many poets today, that poetry should provide a space in which divisions can be met face-on.
The National Poetry Library holds many recordings of the readings at the various Poetry International festivals, however it appears that some have been lost ( we don’t, for instance, have Dame Edna Everage from her 1973 appearance; and Tua Forsstrom (who we will be looking at) couldn’t make it due to ill-health - her translator read in her absence but the recording wasn't kept.).

1967-70s - Basil Bunting 'Briggflatts'

Basil Bunting was born in 1900 in Scotswood-on-Tyne, Northumberland. Bunting is known as a poet of Northern England and is closely associated with Northumberland, where he returned later in life, but he was extremely well-travelled. Bunting attended a Quaker school and was a conscientious objector during World War I and was imprisoned. After his release, he moved to London but it was a move to Paris in 1923 and a meeting with Ezra Pound that really launched his literary life. The two became close and Pound acted as a mentor to Bunting, introducing him to fellow modernists. In Paris, Bunting worked with Ford Madox Ford on the Transatlantic Review. He married his first wife, Marian Culver in 1929. They had 2 daughters and spent the 1930s moving from Italy to the Canary Islands to the United States. In 1937 Marian left Bunting and returned to America (where she was from) and had Bunting’s son. Bunting would never meet his son who died of polio at 16.

During World War II, Bunting enlisted in the RAF and was sent to Persia as a translator. He remained in Tehran until 1952. He married Sima Alladadian in 1948 and had a daughter and a son. Leaving Tehran, Bunting moved back to Northumberland and, in 1954, became an editor for the Newcastle Journal. By the 1960s, a younger generation of poets, including Tom Pickard and Jonathan Williams, had started to seek Bunting out, and in the Morden Tower, a space developed by Pickard, the first performance of Briggflatts, Bunting’s best-known work, took place. In the late ‘60s, Bunting taught at universities in the United States and England (he reunited with his daughters in America during this period). He separated from his second wife in 1977. He suffered from poor eyesight his entire life, and by the 1970s and early ‘80s, he had undergone surgery for cataracts. Though recognised widely as one of Britain’s great late modernist poets, Bunting spent his final years in poverty and died after a short illness in 1985.

Critical comment:

Briggflatts is one of the few great poems of this century. It seems to me greater each time I read it’ – Thom Gunn.

Bunting “is more important to us, and even more legible to us, now than he has been, because he was right about so many things early on...  He was kind of a proto-performance poet”  - Don Share editor of Poetry magazine.

Bunting performed at Poetry International in 1973. We listened to Bunting reading the beginning of section III of Briggflatts which he opened his reading with. The poem can be found in Briggflatts [multimedia] / Basil Bunting -- Tarset, Northumberland : Bloodaxe Books, 2009. 

1. Are you surprised by the subject matter of the section Bunting has chosen to read?
2. Do you admire Bunting for just launching into this?
3. Even though the opening of this section is about people making food from excrement is the poem still beautiful?
4. Bunting said that Briggflatts was a “way of describing my life and what I have made of it one way and another”. If so, what is this section saying about his life?
5. Bunting believed that “Poetry, like music, is to be heard” but does it help to make sense of the poem to read the words on the page?
6. Does hearing this extract make you want to hear/read the whole of Brigflatts?

1980s Paul Muldoon 'Trance'

Paul Muldoon was born in County Armagh, in Northern Ireland, in 1951, the eldest of three children. His mother was a primary schoolteacher and his father held many jobs, including mushroom cultivator. Muldoon attended Queen’s University from 1969 to 1973, and remained in Belfast until 1986, working as a radio and television producer for the BBC. He has lived in the United States since 1987. Muldoon is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, he has received an American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature, the 1994 T. S. Eliot Prize, the 1997 Irish Times Poetry Prize, the 2003 Griffin International Prize for Excellence in Poetry, the 2004 American Ireland Fund Literary Award, the 2004 Shakespeare Prize, the 2005 Aspen Prize for Poetry, and the 2006 European Prize for Poetry. He has been described by The Times Literary Supplement as "the most significant English-language poet born since the second World War."

Muldoon has said: "The point of poetry is to be acutely discomforting, to prod and provoke, to poke us in the eye, to punch us in the nose, to knock us off our feet, to take our breath away."

Critical comment:
Christopher Reid in The Sunday Times 23/10/83  wrote of the collection Quoof (from which the poem is taken): "A significant number of poems in Quoof deal with states of hallucination, whether drug-induced or moral. What Muldoon means us to learn through the wry and unsettling, but finally reorienting, devices of his art, is the need for clarity of vision."

We listened to a recording of Muldoon from Poetry International 1998, reading the poem 'Trance'. The poem was from the collection Quoof / Paul Muldoon -- Faber & Faber, 1980.

1. How do you feel about the rhymes in this poem?
2. How does the jump to a different location in the second stanza work for the poem?
3. Why a ‘star cluster’ of dregs?
4.  How do you feel the poem “pokes us in the eye”?
5. How does the title of the poem work?

1990s  - Sonia Sanchez ‘Reflections After the June 12th March for Disarmament’

Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her mother died when she was very young and from the age of 6 she grew up in Harlem, New York, with her father, who was a school teacher, and his third wife. She earned a BA from Hunter College in 1955 and attended graduate school at New York University, where she studied with the poet Louise Bogan. Sanchez also attended workshops in Greenwich Village, where she met poets such as Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Etheridge Knight, whom she later married. She began teaching in 1965, first on the staff of the Downtown Community School in New York and later at San Francisco State College (now University). There she was a pioneer in developing Black Studies courses, including a class in African American women’s literature. During the early 1960s she was an integrationist but later she was inspired by Malcolm X and the Black Power movement and focused more on her black heritage from a separatist point of view. In 1969, Sanchez published her first book of poetry for adults, Homecoming. She followed that up with 1970’s We a BaddDDD People, which used the African American vernacular as a poetic medium. She has published over 20 collections of poetry for adults and children and several plays. She has won many awards for her writing including The Robert Frost Medal, an award of the Poetry Society of America for "distinguished lifetime service to American poetry."

Critical comment:
“Cultural hero, political activist, playwright, performer and consummate poet, Sonia Sanchez fuses jazz rhythms, percussive vocalizations and dexterous typographical play into electric poems empowered and enriched by black aesthetics and traditions… Though Sonia Sanchez has held academic positions at institutions such as Temple University and San Francisco State (where she helped lay the foundation for the first Black Studies programs in the U.S.), Sanchez's work is decidedly free of bourgeois, intellectual or academic concerns; her poetry is open, approachable, egalitarian in mind and spirit without capitulating to the standards of caucasian-heavy official verse cultures. From the early, unabashedly political work of Homecomings and We a BaddDDD People through the eloquent, painful elegy of Does Your House Have Lions? and in her up-to-the-minute spoken word and incantatory invocations of the spirits of community and ancestral powers, Sanchez has maintained immediacy and relevance of vision…”
Judges D.A. Powell and Fred Moten when awarding the Poetry Society of America 2016 Shelley Memorial Award to Sanchez.

Sonia Sanchez performed at Poetry International in 1992. She took part in a reading with Jackie Kay and Lorna Goodison. We listened to her reading ‘Reflections After the June 12th March for Disarmament’ Read about the march here. The poem is published in the collection Generations: poetry, 1969-1985 / Sonia Sanchez -- London : Karnak House, 1986.

1. Is this a poem written to be performed?
2. Is it more suited to a political rally than a poetry reading?
3. What effect does the repetition of “I have come to you…” create? When “tonite” is added does that make it more personal/powerful?
4. Sanchez added the words “one day” to the end of the poem at the reading. Do you prefer it with or without?
5. This poem was written 35 years ago. Is it still uncomfortably relevant?

2000s Tua Forsström ‘There is always a bit left over’ 

Tua Birgitta Forsström (born 2 April 1947) is a Finnish writer who writes in Swedish. She was awarded the Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 1998 for the poetry collection Efter att ha tillbringat en natt bland hästar = After spending a night among horses
She published her first book in 1972, A Poem about Love and Other Things (En dikt om kärlek och annat). Her breakthrough into the English-speaking world came in 1987 with her sixth collection, Snow Leopard (Snöleopard), which was translated into English by David McDuff and published by Bloodaxe Books. In 1990 the book won a Poetry Book Society Translation Award. In 2006, I Studied Once at a Wonderful Faculty was published by Bloodaxe Books, with translations from David McDuff and Stina Katchadourian. The collection contains Snow Leopard (Snöleopard) (1987), The Parks (Parkerna) (1992), After Spending a Night Among Horses (Efter att ha tillbringat en natt bland hästar) (1997) and a new poem sequence called Minerals. Her collection One evening in October I rowed out on the lake (2012) was published by Bloodaxe in 2015, again translated by David McDuff.
Forsström has said she writes in a state of mind ‘where it feels as if I had no language whatsoever.’

Critical comment:
PN Review said of Snow Leopard: "Psychodramas of love and loss, a deeply felt elemental despair, a relentless metaphysical compulsiveness are all evoked in a language of crafted mute simplicity."

Tua Forsström was due to read at Poetry International with her translator David McDuff but was unable to attend due to ill-health. She was invited back a few years later but we do not have a recording of that reading.

The poem we looked at ‘There is always a bit left over’ is translated by David McDuff and published in Snow Leopard / Tua Forsström -- Newcastle-upon-Tyne : Bloodaxe Books, 1990. 

1 .‘A dancing bear’ - how does this image work in the poem?
2. ‘These short journeys can be very long?’ What do you think the poet is referring to here?
3. Sir, and Mr Livingstone. What happens in the poem when these entities are addressed?
4. 'There is always a bit left over’ - do you feel this is an optimistic declaration?
5. How do feel about the line breaks in this poem?

2010s  - Choman Hardi 'The Weekly Chicken'

Choman Hardi was born in Suleimanya in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1974. She spent the first part of her life in Southern Kurdistan before her family moved to Iran in 1975. Four years later they returned to Iraq. However, they had to flee again in 1988 when Saddam Hussein started attacking the Kurdish people with chemical weapons in what became known as Anfal. She was granted asylum in the UK in 1993, and subsequently earned degrees from Oxford, UCL and Kent. She completed doctoral research at the University of Kent in Canterbury, on the mental health of Kurdish women refugees. Her post-doctoral research has seen her return to Kurdistan to document the plight of women survivors of Anfal. In 2014 she moved back to her home-city of Sulaimani permanently with her husband and daughter to take up a post at the American University of Iraq, becoming chair of the department of English in 2015.

She has published three collections of poetry in Kurdish and her first English collection, Life for Us, was published by Bloodaxe in 2004. Her 2016 English collection Considering the Women (also Bloodaxe), inspired by her research, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection.

Critical comment:
“The threat of death and displacement hangs over the small, modest aspirations of the ‘ordinary’ people in these poems like a massive cliff over a field of flowers. Understandably, tonally many of the poems are tinged with sadness, ghosted by wistfulness for a happy past… Life for Us is not, technique-wise, great poetry. It is, though, moving and genuine, and it has a hefty documentary force. It foregrounds subject matter, not the manner of its saying.”
Kathleen McDermott the dark horse Summer 2005

Choman Hardi was commissioned to write poems for the 2002 Poetry International Festival (which appeared in her 2004 collection Life for Us). She was supposed to perform at this year’s Poetry International but on Thursday evening she posted this on her Facebook page:
“I was supposed to come to London tonight, to read at the Poetry International Festival. As Kurdistan's airports are closed down by the central government (a punishment for holding the referendum on independence), I won't be able to be there for the festival's 50th anniversary. I was supposed to take part in four events on the 14th and 15th and was very much looking forward to sharing the platform with a great line up of poets.”

We looked at one of the poems she wrote for the 2002 festival 'The Weekly Chicken'. We don’t seem to have a recording of her 2002 reading but there is a recording of this poem on Choman Hardi's Poetry Archive CD which we listened to. The poem is published in the collection Life for us / Choman Hardi -- Northumberland : Bloodaxe Books, 2004. 

1. In her introduction to this poem Hardi says that this experience was quite traumatic. Does that come across in the poem? If you hadn't heard that introduction could you read the poem differently, as a poem of celebration for the weekly chicken for example?
2. Do you get a clear sense of the family and their relationships?
3. The critical comment said of the collection that this poem comes from that it “is not, technique-wise, great poetry”. Is that true of this poem, is there any technique behind it?
4. Does the plain language suggest that English is not the poet's first language? Does the plain language give the poem power?

(Poets biographies are adapted from online sources such as The Poetry Archive, The Poetry Foundation and Wikipedia). 

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