London's global poetry anthology
With the Poetry Parnassus festival taking place this week, Joshua Neicho meets representatives from the UK capital's vibrant poetry scene.
London's Southbank Centre is currently hosting the largest gathering of international poets ever to be held in the UK, timed to coincide with the Cultural Olympiad.
Conceived by Simon Armitage as a "non-commercial, non-corporate and decidedly non-competitive happening", Poetry Parnassus has brought together poets from over 145 countries for a series of readings, workshops, debates and jives.
It opened on Tuesday night with a helicopter drop of 100,000 bookmark-sized poems which floated across the city as far as Camberwell.
Poets taking part include two Nobel Laureates, Ireland's Seamus Heaney and Wole Soyinka, representing Nigeria, Pulitzer Prize-winner Kay Ryan and former North Korean court poet Jang Jin-sung, who escaped across the Tumen River into China with his poems strapped to his chest.
Poets who call London home, or who have spent a chunk of their careers here, are also involved paying testament to the capital's enduring appeal as a cultural honeypot.
Independent.co.uk caught up with some of them:
Born: Bermuda, 1970. Dad was a bus driver, mum used to be a dancer. Two brothers. Went to an elite school set up to educate black Bermudans for leadership roles, then to George Brown Theatre School in Toronto.
Early career: Performed with a fusion band in Canada, set up Bermuda’s first open-mic evening in 1997 and directed and acted in experimental work with Waterspout Theatre. Came to the UK in 2004.
Poetry in his own words: “My poetry is drama in poetic form, my plays are poetry shifted in a different angle, and music is woven through it all." A perfectionist, finds writing a burden but loves editing.
Inspirations: Anne Carson; Toni Morrison “not a poet, though her work is pure poetry” and Bermudian writers like Paul Maddern and Angela Barry. Enjoys finding and reading discarded poetry pamphlets of unknown poets.
London life: Always lived in north London. Loves the Millennium Bridge, eats at Turkish grill Yildiz on Blackstock Road, a fan of Club Wotever at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.
Dreams of home: Goes back to Bermuda every couple of years, which he describes like a Wizard of Oz effect, a burst of colour after London.
Future: Anticipates staying here along with many other Bermudan creatives who moved here after Bermudans were granted UK citizenship in 2003. “Part of me really enjoys the buzz of the city, but I also worry about the [human] noise that buzz overpowers and makes inaudible.”
Born: On a public housing estate in Kowloon. Dad works in hotel catering, mum used to work as a store assistant. Went to a local Chinese primary school before gaining a place at a prestigious Anglican girls’ school and later won a scholarship from the Swire Trust to read English at Oxford.
Early career: Worked for two years in PR for a property developer; later did an internship at Tate as she felt she had missed out on a creative role as a young graduate. Now works in marketing and translation. Her parents were at first resistant to the idea of her writing poetry and she used to feel guilty because she enjoyed it so much.
Poetry in her own words: “An ongoing dialogue between my Chinese and Western personalities. I want to create poetry understandable even for those who don't usually read literature”. Has done a number collaborations with artists. Likes writing in Regent Street Starbucks.
Inspirations: Classical Chinese poets; Larkin, TS Eliot and Heaney.
London life: Lives in Ealing. Loves the Serpentine, independent bookshops and British Library. Likes baking; Pearl Liang in Paddington is her favourite Chinese restaurant in London
Dreams of home: Goes back once a year. Unlike some friends, she identifies with both Hong Kong and mainland China.
Future: Second book, The Foreign, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Staying put in London - “it's just hard to leave the city! Here you have a lot of respect for the arts, but there are far more people interested in working in the arts than there are jobs”.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Born: In Britain in 1974, went to Ghana aged four and attended elite Achimota School. Four siblings.
Early career: Came to the UK to study food technology at Manchester Metropolitan University in 1994. After two years working in Ghana, came to London in 2001 and embarked on an editing and writing career, managing a publishing house and co-founding a short story-promoting initiative.
Poetry in his own words: "Performance poetry *is* poetry. Language is music, when you write on paper it's dead, it comes to life when spoken”. Known for his collaborations with musicians. "I'm kind of a real lazy writer - I read and write mainly lying down in bed, a habit I've had since I was a kid".
Inspirations: Grew up reading African writers such as Atukwei Okai and Dennis Brutus; later, lots of Yeats, Heaney and Don Patterson.
London life: Mainly lived in south London, “the only place I can afford", and loves its green spaces. Has “a love affair with London - I like to go and listen to all kinds of music, keep up with the theatre, go to the cinema and galleries but with two kids I've not been able to do nearly as much".
Dreams of home: "A writer is never really in one place”. His library is split between London and Accra and he goes to Ghana once a year for up a three months, “or my sanity suffers a bit".
Future: A shoe he designed for Converse as part of Project RED is forthcoming. Finishing a book of short stories and working on two stage projects.
Abdullahi Botaan Hassan "Kurweyne"
Born: Somalia, 1969.
Early career: Began writing poems as a teenager – with Somalia’s oral verse tradition he says there was a poet “on every street” in Mogadishu, and he didn’t see himself as a poet until he first fled to the UK in 1998. He went back to Mogadishu later and returned to London for good in 2004. He has run a café on Cromer Street in King’s Cross since 2005 and set up community arts organisation Soohan which promotes understanding of Somali culture and offers workshops for primary school kids.
Poetry in his own words: He sees himself as a “radio station” and poet transmitting “natural frequencies” between diasporic communities. Somalian poetry has strong rhythm and alliteration. His poetry in English uses the same structures, but swaps metaphors to sights and experiences familiar to Britain - so acacia trees become broccoli for instance. Composes in his head, and many of his poems have never been written down; works with an Australian “translator” Rob Inglis.
Inspired by: Somali poets such as Sayid Mohamed and Abdi Galayah.
London life: Has lived in Islington, Finsbury Park and elsewhere in north London. The strength of the Somali community in Camden he says makes it feel like being in Mogadishu.
Dreams of home/Future: “I am very homesick – we all are”. Has just translated Shakespeare’s sonnets into Somali for the Globe to Globe festival. Hopes to go back to Somalia in July. He's working with a charity on a school building project and wants to be part of the reconstruction of the country if circumstances improve.
Born: 1982, parents moved to South Africa from Zimbabwe, father a diamond analyst, mother a linguistics PhD. Went to girls’ schools in Johannesberg.
Early career: Studied English at the university of Cape Town in 2000 then came to the University of East Anglia for the creative writing MA. Worked in PR for an designer and for an architect and has been a freelance journalist.
Poetry in her own words: “Plaintive and sentimental, aggressive and contrary”. Mostly writes in coffee shops. Frustrated at how poetry writing in South Africa was seen as a choice between lyric and protest poetry with a social function, when she wanted to explore herself. Felt liberated coming to London.
Inspirations: Alice Oswald, Hughes, Frost, Walcott; in prose, Proust, Nabokov and Orhan Pamuk.
London life: Has always lived in east London, though likes to escape to the wilds of Hampstead Heath. Keen on talks and discussions by writers and academics, and a Lucian Freud fan.
Dreams of home: Goes back to South Africa every couple of years – thinks living in two places enables you to see the reality of each better.
Future: working on a series of poems called House for the Study of Water, drawing from the letters of architect Bruno Taut and memoirs of German judge and Freudian analysis subject Daniel Schreber.
Born: Kandahar in 1979. His father, from the Hosseini tribe, was a landowner and ran a farm. His mother is Iranian, the daughter of a religious intellectual who was apolitical in the Revolution. The family fled the Soviet invastion for Pakistan and later went to Iran, returning to Afghanistan for a few years in the Nineties.
Early career: Reza grew up around people reciting poetry in Farsi and Pashtun, both classics and poems of their own composition. He won a prize for being the best young poet in Iran in 1990/1. Curfews and privations made life difficult in Iran and he was arrested and put in a camp twice. In 2003 he went back to Afghanistan a second time and ran a magazine in Kabul. In 2007, he went to London to study for an MA in philosophy at London Met.
Poetry in his own words: A kind of "magical realism", taking ideas from Persian myths and legends.
Inspiration: Favourite English poets are Oscar Wilde, then Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
London life: He started off living in New Malden, now in Kensington. Intrigued by the international mix in his philosophy class and now loves London's multiculturalism. Enjoys Tate Modern. An Arsenal fan, his favourite player is Theo Walcott and he thinks Roy Hodgson will sort out English football.
Dreams of home/Future: When he has the money, he plans to go back to Afghanistan and run a school for children with no educational opportunities. But he admits London has a magnetic pull.
Born: Madras, 1975 – Welsh mother who met her Gujurati chemist father in Canada and followed him to India. Went to an avant garde school based in a palace, where she made her first appearance on stage age 3 in a dance production.
Early career: Suffered reverse culture shock when aged 18 she went from her liberal home background to college in Charlotte, North Carolina to study American literature, where she also began to write poetry. Went on to do a Masters at Baltimore. Often visited London as a child; came to work for Harpers & Queen’s advertising department in 1999 for ten months until she realised she didn’t want to be ad exec. On her return to India began a career as a dancer after meeting choreographer Chandralekha.
Poetry in her own words: Poems about home and the idea of belonging, “the basics” of love and life. Writes long-hand when composing. “Impossible” for her dancing not to influence her poems – “there is almost a physicality you need for writing”.
Inspirations: Contemporary American poets like Mary Oliver, James Tate and Mark Strand
London life: Has lived in Lewisham, Wimbledon and Finchley Road. Comes back to London every year and finds a connection with a huge community of people all over the world who have also had a spell living in London. Feels she couldn’t live here, because of the weather and the cost.
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