Henry Oliver snuggles down in Blackwell's with the Ambit Poets
Fewer than twenty of us gather on the first floor of Blackwell’s on a chilly Monday evening, all looking slightly awkward. Everyone shuffles around, very politely not speaking to each other. The organiser, Rita Ricketts the Blackwell Archivist, specifies only one rule – help yourself to wine. She is a vivacious woman and keeps spirits bobbing, chatting with the poets and audience alike while we wait for the last few people to arrive. The first poet is a voluptuous Serbian woman called Sonja who wears elliptical turquoise glasses; she is a poet, critic and playwright and describes herself as a voluntary exile. Then there’s Satyandra: an Indian gentleman who taught Indian History at Cambridge for twenty-five years and has won numerous awards around the world. He is short, wears enormous glasses on his bulbous nose and has shoulder length hair, neatly swept back like the quills of a porcupine. The third poet, Lin Hongbin, is absent, his work being read by a woman who works for the poetry magazine Ambit, besides being an Oxford graduate in Chinese. On the shelf above their heads are copies of the newly released letters of Ted Hughes. It feels fitting to be attending such a gathering under the auspices of the grand master.
All of these poets have left their native country, and we were gathered to listen to poetry about the nature of exile. It became apparent that neither Sonja nor Satyandra thought of themselves as exiles, but more as ex-patriots, having voluntarily moved to England to study or work. Liu Hongbin is a different matter: his father was executed in 1970 and his poetry was circulated during the Tiananmen Square protests. China won’t have him back, suprisingly enough. His feelings are understandably mixed. We heard a reading from each poet: the poetry was good, the wine was better. Sonja’s poetry is full of clear purposeful imagery and carves a world out of cultural detail and careful rhythm. Part of her collection is about plants, for which she undertook detailed research of plant mythologies – her work is very precise about the things it discusses. Satyandra read us a poem called Winston Churchill Knew My Mother which is about his homeland, his sense of national pride, and his joy at arriving in England and going to Hyde Park to tell the statue of Winston Churchill that his mother had been one of the supporters of the great empire. The reading of Liu’s poem was difficult. It has lost a lot in translation. Both Sonja and Satyandra write in English as well as Serbian and Hindi, whereas Liu only writes in Chinese, which he then translates into English himself. Although leading English poets help him polish the English, the transfer from a language of symbols and pictures to one of words leaves the poem feeling artistically underdeveloped, full of blunt imagery and stilted rhythm. Whilst the poem is well constructed from an intellectual standpoint, meditating on the idea and ideology of History and its relationship to personal and national identity, clunking lines such as "Confucius without a diploma had to enrol at the Open University" hardly do the poem’s ideas justice.
A late arrival appeared somewhere in the readings, quietly shuffling to the back. Nazand Begikhari is a Kurdish poet with a doctorate who has studied at the Sorbonne. She is a survivor of Anfal, the Iraqi genocide led by Saddam Hussein against Kurdistan in 1987, in which she lost many family members and friends. She too may never return to her native country. Her poetry was the best of the lot, full of meaningful sparsity, which struck me as reminiscent of Frost, and symbolic imagery. She read, as she clearly writes, from her soul, working effectively within a tradition whilst breaking out from conventional forms. The most powerful poem was an anti-patriarchy piece about a guard who, when presented with ten death certificates, "signed them while drinking mint tea." That poem An Ordinary Day is deservedly in the Forward Book of Poetry. She maintains tight control over the poem throughout and creates an effective psychological portrait which resonates long afterwards with harrowing thoughts of how the reality compares to the art.
Discussion and questions ensued and the poets were happy to chat to us about their passionate love of England as well as about their home countries. There was a clear divide between those who left voluntarily and those who cannot return. What united them was a belief in poetry and poets as representatives bearing witness to life, especially Nazand, who is publishing work in Kurdistan as part of her anti-patriarchy movement; Kurdish Women Against Honour Killings. The evening was well orchestrated and even the cosy audience was a positive advantage; this was the sort of small, unpretentious event which typifies the best part of Oxford. The readings were set up because the founders of the store were all aspirational writers who invited poets to speak, and published early work of poets such as Auden, and Rita Ricketts fervently believes in the promotion of poetry, and in a community of known and unknown poets. The triumph of the evening lies in the truth that poetry has always been aural, and works best as aural art.
The next reading is on January 15th at Blackwell’s bookshop, Broad Street