Language on the Side of Freedom
Language is of course the point when it comes to a poetry festival, not stars or trends but what writers on the stage are doing with words. In a time when the deep impact of colonialism and empire is still felt, we need to be reminded how language can effect change. In 2018, 70 years since Empire Windrush docked in London, language has a lot to answer for – the words used to demonise migrants, the words used to justify deportation, the rise of far-right rhetoric globally.
So do poets and festival programmers have a responsibility? Winchester Poetry Festival appears to believe so. On the first weekend of October poets traveled to this city in the South Downs where Keats wrote ‘To Autumn’, and embraced themes of identity and sense of place with imagery drawn from family, gardens, mines, war, shattered phones, exile, dub and anarchic babies.
There were more women than men and about a third were poets of colour. Ian McMillan introduced the phrase ‘battleground of language’ on Friday night and it smouldered in his infectious love of the eccentric and the odd. With each poet, the phrase became more layered. There were literal battlegrounds - WW1 where Gillian Clarke reminded us that the Welsh language poet Hedd Wyn was killed, where Karen McCarthy Woolf reminded us that Caribbean soldiers were treated with unapologetic racism. Then the battleground of Belfast, summoned by Leontia Flynn, of early 20th century Ireland by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, of working class struggle that Paul Batchelor remembered. There were modern battlegrounds in the work of Iranian born Azita Ghahreman, Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji and Nicola Madzirov from Macedonia.
Madzirov has read in the UK several times and his work is now being translated by that leading poet of resistance, Carolyn Forché. He reminds us of peripheral spaces and the traces we leave. Ghahreman writes, “My tongue trips up when I speak of that journey’…and ‘my name here is neither immigrant nor exile.’ Joseph Brodsky, writing about his friend Derek Walcott in the New York Review of Books in 1983 said, “The real biographies of poets are like those of birds, almost identical—their data are in the way they sound. A poet’s biography lies in his twists of language, in his meters, rhymes, and metaphors.”
The overlapping of languages in the Caribbean was raised by Vahni Capildeo in the discussion, Profound Pyromania. Capildeo argued that the plurality of language in Trinidad, for example, and in Caribbean poetry, placed it far from the colonial centre of empire.
Whether it was Ishion Hutchinson (pictured) exploring the dub of Lee Scratch Perry or the stillness of Pascale Petit and Kathleen Jamie’s refusal to translate from Scots, whether it was Nick Makoha writing to stop feeling embarrassed as a Ugandan in Britain, Caroline Bird putting life under the microscope, whether it was the naming of endangered species and rural jobs as Harry Mann and Rebecca Goss are doing, Winchester Poetry Festival showed us language on the side of freedom.