Friday, October 16, 2009

Words to change the world

by Daphne Liddle

THREE themes came together is Kensington Town Hall last Saturday night – they were Third World Solidarity, the Poetry Olympics and the Muslim celebration of Eid in an event of performance poetry and music.
Too often English audiences are deterred from poetry performances by bad poetry badly presented. Poetry is for everyone but like any other art form is requires some thought and effort from the creator and the presenter.
I remember a peace rally in 1991 in Woolwich Town Hall that was almost entirely cleared by a recital from veteran peace campaigner Pat Arrowsmith. No one doubted her courage or credentials as a fighter for peace but she was not a wordsmith.
She was about to go out to the Gulf and interpose herself between two front lines to try to prevent the impending war. We wondered if her “poetry” was the magic weapon to send both frontlines into rapid retreat.
A poet, like a painter or a composer, has inspiration and a message, a thought or a feeling to communicate. But to do justice to their inspiration the artist chooses carefully the right colours and textures of paint and surface; the musician chooses carefully the right notes, rhythms and instruments to give the right tone and texture of sound.
Communicating an inspiration into a form that other minds can receive takes some care and effort. For a poet, that means choosing carefully the right words, the rights sounds, rhythms and textures to generate a complete picture in the mind of the listener.
Chosen carefully, words are the most powerful tools we have. Words can convey information; they can soothe and comfort; they can encourage; they can humiliate; they can break hearts; they can anger; they can confuse and deceive; they can sell; they can create a god; they can bore; they can make people fall in and out of love; they can satisfy or they can start a revolution that will change the world.
There is nothing boring about the study of language. The power of magic spells in superstitious times was entirely in the right choice and use of words.
And the performers we saw on stage in Kensington Town Hall last Saturday were absolute masters of language and demonstrated poetry at its very best. And both in content and presentation it was poetry at the service of justice, peace and democracy – the aims of Third World Solidarity.
The event was organised by local Labour councillor Mushtaq Lasharie and presented by Michael Horovitz.
The first performer was Mahmood Jamal who performed poetry he had translated from the original Pakistani and some of his own.
This was followed by Guyanan Keith Waite, who, with the aid of a flute, conjured up the sounds and the atmosphere of the jungle.
Patience Agbabi gave us first a fast and vivid hymn of praise to the importance of words, Give me a word, then a well crafted story in rap poem of her life: born in Africa, raised in London and then returning to Lagos to find herself an outsider in both places – a Ufo woman.
Oliver Bernard gave us his experiences of life since the 1930s; Steven Berkoff presented a tennis championship final match as a fast and furious battle saga; Eleanor Bron read from an anthology produced by Poetry Olympics and some pieces of her own and Elvis McGonnigal had us laughing out loud with his quick-fire satires on the world of power politics, along with sporadic digs at the pop singer James Blunt, whom he compared to the Orville, the ventriloquist dummy duck.
We heard from Moazzam Begg, for four years a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay, who wrote poetry to preserve his sanity during those terrible years. He explained how many prisoners, denied access to pens and paper, found a way of writing by using the little finger nails to cut into the surface of Styrofoam cups.
The size of the cups limited the poems to just a couple of lines but nevertheless these poems made it to the outside world, smuggled out, often by sympathetic guards and are now published.
The works of all these poets and many more are available in print with details from New Departures/Poetry Olympics, PO Box 9819, London W11 2GQ or

photo:Eleanor Bron

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