Saturday, 24 March 2012

Poetry Under Occupation

Richard Wilcocks writes:
I discovered the poetry of Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski during the eighties, when I was working for the British Council at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. The discovery led to another one – the remarkably powerful interpretations of his work by the charismatic Polish singer Ewa Demarczyk. She is known as a leading practitioner of sung poetry, and has given her attention to a number of other poets, not all from the Polish canon, for example Goethe.

This poem could be illustrated with many image-collections from Second World War Poland. I chose the heroic but doomed Warsaw Uprising of 1944 for my slide show, because that is where Baczynski died. I considered that the pictures projected on to the wall in the Shire Oak Room of the Heart Centre were necessary because the romantic and ‘catastrophist’ poems are best understood in a specific context: many people have just a vague knowledge of what happened in Poland between 1939 and 1945, when it was first of all carved up between Germany and the Soviet Union, each of which became responsible for appalling atrocities, then when it came under the complete control of the Nazis, with all the mass-murder which they brought with them. People outside Poland seem to know more about the equally heroic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, but little about the events of the following year, organised by the Polish Home Army (Armija Krajowa), which prompted Heinrich Himmler, SS and Gestapo chief, to order that all the city’s Polish inhabitants should be killed and all the buildings flattened. Poles were regarded by the Nazis as Untermenschen, subhuman. Slavs were next on the extermination list after the Jews.

I read poems by one or two other Polish poets who have written about the War, leaving out quite a few which had been on my original list for reasons of time, for example the great Tadeusz Różewicz. As I told the audience at the time, my Polish is not strong, and much of the hard work on Baczynski was done in collaboration by Anna Żukowska-Wilcocks. When we translated our selection of poems a couple of decades ago, we could not find any English versions, but there are now several websites which feature them, and we have our preferences and criticisms in relation to these. I did not want to make the English versions too mellifluous, but to retain stark, staccato qualities, which is difficult when it is necessary to use definite and indefinite articles in English - not in Polish.  The reading included some of our translations (like Deszcze) which have been anthologized (the excellent Poetry of the Second World War edited by Desmond Graham) and some (like Miserere) which have not. Others could have been included, for example more of his love poems.

Many of Baczynski’s highly emotive poems cry out for dramatic performance, and it was a privilege to be able to do that.

Síle Moriarty writes:
I thought the Shire Oak Room at HEART looked lovely for this event. It had already been used for three community events during the day and now, through the efforts of Centre Manager, Mark and his staff, (ably assisted by LitFest volunteers), it had been transformed into a beautiful performance space complete with piano, stage lighting, microphones etc. plus table decorations (daffodils) and tea lights. It glimmered with light and was a pleasure to perform in.

Poetry under occupation is often considered to be war poetry but I am very aware of another type of occupation – the occupation of a country by an alien language. This has never been more true than of Ireland where the occupation by English has been so complete that some of the greatest writers in the English language are in fact Irish: Yeats, Joyce, Wilde, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland to name but a few.

But the Irish language is not completely dead; it clings on in the Gaelteacht areas, predominantly on the west coast, and as a subject taught in schools. It also has its own great writers and the poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is one of them.

Nuala is passionate about the language; she considers that the loss of the Irish language is ‘... a psychic fault line, a personality cleavage along the different language lines (which) will return to haunt us’. She also says that Irish is ‘... the corpse that sits up and talks back.’

She wanted to write about the loss of the language but as a poet, not a historian or socio-linguist. She dug into the pre-Christian roots of Ireland, into is myth and folklore and came up with a metaphor for the language in the form of merpeople – mermaids and mermen. She wondered what would happen if they were forced to leave the sea and live on dry land. How would that affect their collective psyche? Would it warp their society, block access to their history and lead to strange beliefs and superstitions? Nuala wrote a collection based on this metaphor called The Fifty Minute Mermaid and it is from this book that my readings last night were, in the main, selected. When I was translating her poems (with the invaluable help of Maire Ní Ghrifín, my Irish language teacher) I became more and more aware of the power of poetry to express the human condition. As Adrian Phillips writes when reviewing the collection for the Guardian in 2008 the fifty minutes of the title refers to:

’… the so-called 50-minute hour of psychoanalysis, a modern therapy that is about our immersion in the past and our distortions of time’.

But the poetry is so much more than that; Adrian Philips again:

 ‘The naff banality of psychology, 'a real difficulty of boundaries', is played off against the extraordinary vision of what this may mean in practice, at its best. If everything in the language runs into everything else, it both crashes and blends. What the mermaid has learnt are the hollows of insulation. There is no romanticising of the past, no obsessive elegising in Ni Dhomhnaill's work. It is something far more disturbing than innocence or order she wants to recover.’

To be able to read from this extraordinary collection and in such a great setting was a real pleasure for me. Treasa Ní Drisceól read Ceist Na Teangan ‘as Gaeilge’ and sang a beautiful version of Fear a Bháta (despite suffering from the flu) for which I am extremely grateful.

It was an extraordinary night (the poetry of Krzystof Kamil Baczynski, plus the wonderful performance of Reem Kelani) and I am really pleased that I was able to contribute to it.  But what pleases me even more is that I heard Gaeigle spoken again (it has happened in the LitFest before) in Headingley.

Sally Bavage writes:
And so to the final part of the evening.  Reem Kelani came to Headingley LitFest hotfoot from a rapturous packed performance at the Howard Assembly Rooms sponsored by Opera North; she gathered her thoughts, soothed her voice and gave us a tour-de-force performance on our theme of Poetry under Occupation.  Manchester-born Reem was brought up in Kuwait and in fact qualified and worked as a research marine biologist before turning to music and poetry.  She now spends her time translating and performing literature, poetry and songs that promote some of the most significant Arabic works.

She dedicated her set of songs and poems to Abu Bakr Rauf, the young Respect party founder member who had so unexpectedly collapsed and died on Tuesday 20 March whilst out campaigning in the Bradford West by-election. Visibly moved, Reem praised the work of the young father who was Chair of the Bradford Palestine Solidarity Campaign.  Golda Meir, a former prime minister of Israel once said "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people... It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn't exist."  But as Reem pointed out, she sings songs and poems developed over centuries by the Palestinian people so how could they not exist? She works tirelessly to promote Palestinian identity and culture.
Around half of her songs and poems were Palestinian in origin, pre-1948 versions, from her first album Sprinting Gazelle ( and half from work by Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923).  Her project researching his work has taken the best part of a decade and, whilst working on what will be an album hopefully released by the end of 2012, she was in Cairo in January 2011.  She was there in Tahrir Square, saw the explosion of popular feeling against the oppression by a repressive regime and heard the songs of Darwish dominating the singing by the crowds.  The same songs sung in 1919 against the occupying regime of the British.  Same poet, different century, same hopes for freedom of expression.  The power of words again!

What a night we had! Accompanied by Bruno Heinem on the piano, they moved us to laughter and tears by turns with her poetry, her passion and his playing.  You couldn’t put it better than ‘The Observer’: “Kelani has a voice of amazing power and intensity, but it’s always controlled, and there’s a moving vulnerability there too.”  Here was another observer who was privileged to be part of such a special event.

Reem will be appearing again in Leeds on Friday 27 April at Seven Arts - do not miss the opportunity! 

Below, Richard Wilcocks, Síle Moriarty, Reem Kelani

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