Britain has something to learn from the Arab world when it comes to appreciating our poets. This was the view of writer Fiona Sampson when I spoke to her in the run-up to Poetry International 2010, the Southbank Centre’s biennial festival that’s been running since 1967, when Ted Hughes was curator and Allen Ginsberg nearly set the place on fire with incense sticks.
The cold war was the political backdrop to that first event, while this year’s festival focuses on the middle east and in particular Israel-Palestine. There will be appearances by Palestinian-American hip hop poets and the celebrated Palestinian writer Mourid Barghouti, who will be joined onstage by his son Tamim, a political scientist as well as a poet.
Sampson, whose latest collection, Rough Music, is up for this year’s TS Eliot Prize, was chosen to read at the festival’s opening night on Saturday by the Palestinian-American poet (and doctor) Fady Joudah. The event, called “Times They Are a Changing,” will see four writers associated with the middle east reading alongside the British authors they admire.
“It’s a bit of a vicious cycle in Britain,” Sampson told me, during a conversation about the different status poetry has in Arabic and English-speaking countries. “Our poets are a little apologetic in our writing style and in the themes that they tackle, and that’s because they’re part of a culture that doesn’t really value poetry. Among the arts, we perceive poetry as the most flowery and the least responsible.”
With the tagline “Imagining Peace,” Poetry International 2010 is setting out to explode that myth. Curator Rachel Holmes, who attended the Palestinian literature festival, Palfest, earlier this year, talked at a launch party of poetry’s great tradition of “actively confronting illegitimate authority.”
She’s backed up by Southbank Centre’s artistic director Jude Kelly, who sent this statement from China: “The concept of poets contributing to peace is not merely a romantic or abstract idea; nor is it an attempt to invade the territory of policy making. It is an assertion that creating different ways of imagining the future is the only way that we can build a future worth having.”
Fady Joudah, who I spoke to on the phone as he finished a clinic in Houston,…