Mike Quille praises the 'subversive internationalism' of the 2018 Teeside International Poetry Festival, and presents some of the poems performed there.
250 years ago, Middlesbrough-born James Cook set sail on one of history’s iconic imperialist journeys. It was a voyage which extended scientific, geographical and cultural knowledge of other peoples. It also facilitated the violent economic exploitation of the globe, the political domination of other peoples, and massive worldwide cultural destruction, theft and appropriation by Britain’s ruling class.
fish quay fugues
by Paul Summers
the old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.
- antonio gramsci
& the way will be perilous;
black ice & shark-eyed smiles,
several heaps of hogmanay vomit,
a vacant pizza-box draped with hoar,
its palimpsest of feast & greed,
bleak litany of the new & old,
dog-shit & fag-ends & crumbling roads,
the hours’ lash, the pains of labour,
the endless cycle of peddled fact.
& then the sanctuary of frozen sand;
its confluence of salt & wind-whipped crows,
the hymn of a sea cathedral hollow.
kick off your shoes my love & walk;
due east, towards the burgeoning sun.
plough on through the grave mounds
of haddock-frames & listless kelp,
tread slowly on the pebble field,
avoid the triggers of its toad-back traps;
then walk & wade & catch your breath,
beyond the bar where codling lurk,
let swell becalm your troubled blood,
squeeze shut your jaded eyes & dream;
the rapture of tectonic plates entwined
in acts of violence & of love, the red raw
ooze of magma’s birthing, each push,
each jolt, each breathless force exerted
sees citadels emergent from these waves,
a glimpse of doggerland’s trembling plains,
its strongholds of hope re-rendered
now un-drowned, their beacons still charged,
their gates agape, their monsters slain;
each edifice an altar awaiting our faith.
Working women and men in Middlesbrough never benefited very much from Britain’s imperialist project. It is now one of the most economically and socially deprived areas of the UK, and has the most ethnically diverse population in the North East.
The Usefulness of Poetry
by Francis Combes
A young beggar encountered in the metro
had written these words
on a piece of cardboard hung round his neck;
‘As the burning forest
shouts towards the river’s water
I appeal to you:
Please give me
something to eat.’
And it seems
People were giving.
(Which would tend to point to
the usefulness of poetry
in our societies.)
Against this background of deindustrialization, poverty and dispossession, the Teeside International Poetry Festival, which ran in various venues in Middlesbrough at the end of April, showcased a phenomenal variety of examples of artistic, social and political engagement from countries around the world as well as from communities in the North East.
The sheer internationalism of the event was astounding. Poets came to read and perform their poetry from Iraq, Finland, Iceland, Nigeria, Botswana, Poland, Russia, India and elsewhere. The variety of the poetics on offer was astonishing, from Lev Rubinstein’s Russian conceptual poetry, with its roots in the wonderful flowering of conceptual arts in 1920s revolutionary Soviet Union……..
by Lev Rubinstein
Not at all possible.
Perhaps, at some point.
And not now.
And not now.
It could be soon.
Perhaps earlier than expected.
Well, that’s about all.
……….to Peter Adegbie’s and Eric Motswasale’s gloriously entertaining praise-poetry from Nigeria and Botswana, interrogating the rapacious – and ongoing – effects of European colonialism on Africa's languages and peoples:
by Peter Adegbie
Was a rallying cry!
When your car was stuck... Esoobay!
When friends gave a hand... Esoobay!
When brute strength was needed
all you required was a shout of Esoobay!
We will laugh and sometimes we cried,
but we always got the task done.
Esoobay was a mantra of vigour.
I thought Esoobay was Ibo or Efik
or one of those exotic dialect
of the proud Niger, rich in history and folklore.
O great bright sky, how could I
under your gaze have lived
in blindness for so long?
Who could ever imagine
that colonial abuse can become language.
This persona crept into our lives
without guns or machete.
It took on life, defying time
abusing reason until its truth shames me.
It is not the truth that hurts the most
but the emptiness that takes its place.
Esoobay... cherished chant of my youth
now lost forever, stripped like leaves
off the tree of indignity,
sounds of a fractured memory
I long to forget in the winds of history.
by Keabonye Bareeng
What happened to you Africa?
You were born black and free
Yet you never enjoyed your liberty
Your hands and legs bear the marks of slavery
You were not a buyer in a slave trade market
You were never in enslaved no one
But your children are bound servants
They speak a stranger to a merciless alien chorus
Tailor made to fit his distraction aspiration
AFRICA you were born wealthy
Gold, diamonds, oil, and kinds of minerals
God planted them in the belly of your black land
Raw and indubitable for your enjoyment
Yet you have never tasted their sweetness
They are looted in the name assistance
Finished products of your own minerals
Do not bear your name AFRICA
You cannot afford to purchase them
You are poorest and survived by aids
Aids that you get in the exchange of your soul
Aids that have strings attached to
Aids that drinks the blood of your children
Who has robbed you of your dignity?
The alien enjoys your riches
The interior of your land is blessed and rich
But you are not able to feed your own children
Hunger disease swallow your children
Conflicts rooted elsewhere finds comfort in your huts
Your infants are freezing from the cold of imperialism
AFRICA who raped you and broke your virginity?
Your beauty that used to grasp the eyes of strangers
Has been turned into a battle field of endless wars
Who gave you AK47 to massacre your own children?
Why do you allow them to give their war tanks?
You were born peaceful and abhorred conflict
They made weapons to terminate you AFRICA
Their destructive missiles are tested in your head
At the barrel of a gun they looted your land
Why do you let them mislead you?
Who has bewitched you great land?
Stand up and open your eyes AFRICA
Certify your exploiters wrong
You are not what they declare you to be
You can clean your house without their help
Develop your culture without their rescue
You can heal your land without medication
Talk; minister to God without their medication
Breast-feed your children without compassion
Africa you the age and powerful enough to rescue yourself
Do not let them divide you and fight in your land
Do not allow them to despise you
You know their minds they cannot perceive your capability
You have mastered their language they are unable to speak yours
AFRICA you are elegant, preserves yourself that way
There is nobody like you anywhere AFRICA.
Over the course of four days, the festival shaped itself into a living collage of poetics, gradually building a conversational echo-chamber of voices and languages which was as stimulating as it was energising. Diversity was also expressed and celebrated through the wide range of events. As well as readings, cabarets, and workshops, there was a launch of a book of poems by Teeside primary schoolchildren; an Urdu-Punjabi 'mushaira' or poetic gathering; and poetry masterclasses in local colleges.
There were also some excellent discussions about poetry, such as the one at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art on the relationship between beauty and usefulness in poetry. MIMA, it should be noted, is also moving forward with a responsive, civic agenda - its new mission is to reconnect art with its social function and promote art as a tool for changing the world. Like the poets appearing at the Festival, MIMA wishes to have an influence on society, and play a full part in addressing current issues in politics, economics and culture. Its current and planned programmes of visual art tackle urgent and locally very pressing themes of housing, migration, and inequality, which made it a fitting venue for Festival events.
What, then, binds together this eclectic, multi-stranded poetry festival, as it creatively scatters the peaceful light of global fellowship and community, and imaginatively shatters the violent realities of imperialism, chauvinism, exploitation and oppression?
Its gentle, insistent and necessarily subversive internationalism. Its celebration of poetry as a tool of resistance, of protest, of imagining alternatives. And its subtly suggestive but quietly powerful celebration of poetry as a fundamentally social art which makes common cause between communities worldwide, and which enables a communal imagining of a better world.
Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.