Poetry as a Host

Poetry as a Host

By Lyndsey Stonebridge, University of East Anglia

Earlier this autumn, I was fortunate enough to watch a film of a young poet recite a new poem. The poet currently lives in Palermo, Sicily, and is a student at a host school teaching young refugees and migrants. He recited his poem at the end of a Stories in Transit writing workshop, organised by the novelist and critic, Marina Warner, and the literature academic, Valentina Castagna. Stories in Transit is a key collaborator in our AHRC-ESRC project, Local Community Experiences of Displacement from Syria.

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‘Migrant’ boat spotted in Monreale Cathedral, Palermo (c) L. Stonebridge

The poem told how the poet had four brothers, and he was the fifth. When he is away from his brothers he asks that the moon be their guardian. The brothers are separated now because of money. And money, the poem concludes, is the mixer of souls – it sets one soul against another, soul against soul.

The poem tells us much about contemporary migrant and refugee experiences, about families living apart, and about the moon, which can be seen by everyone wherever they are. When you ask the moon to look after your absent brothers, you can also believe that the moon sees them too: a celestial guardian, mediating absence, a secure point in the sky when secure points on earth are scarce. Then there is the money, ever absent, ever present, cleaving souls.

There is a school of literary humanitarianism that believes poetry is primarily therapeutic; that poems allow arrivants to speak of lost homes, giving voice to trauma, healing wounds. This may be true in some cases, although sometimes one might wonder whose mind benefits most from the articulation of grief, the poet or the keenly sympathetic listener.

Anyway, his wasn’t this kind of poem.

It was, rather, a thoughtfully crafted verse of precise insight and deep emotion. At the workshop, the young poet recited the poem in Arabic. Another poet then translated into English, and a third into French. The poem was then recited again in Arabic, this time with most people in the room having grasped some of its meaning.

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Qur’anic inscription on pillar, entrance of Palermo Cathedral. (c) L. Stonebridge

Spoken four times by three voices, this wasn’t just one poem, then, but a poetry event, a conversation between tongues, cultures, hosts, travellers from across Europe, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, Lebanon.  Sound not suffering mattered most in this conversation: all three poets agreed the doubling of ‘soul against soul’ in the final line of the poem needed to be heard across all three languages. And so they were, in English, Arabic and French, the ‘souls’ resonating together and apart like the brothers in the poem.

When the young poet spoke the poem for the final time, everyone could hear that he was speaking from deep within that mixing of souls, separate from his siblings, but together in the art of his poem.  He owned it, and his audience, as in the best recitations, with his words, breath, body and mind.

Poetry is not therapy, and writing is only creative to the extent that can be accommodated between people. It is a kind of host. We will be developing and exploring the kind of hosting that poetry and translation can make possible throughout Refugee Hosts.

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