Poetry International: Respond

November 3, 2008 by

In no way does this contribute to the discussions about freedom, but I thought it would be nice to show people the Respond booth in Poetry International coz it’s so very, really, pretty.

The Speechless poets were hanging out outside the Purcell Room a few hours before our show and Aoife Mannix tinkered around with one of the Macbooks and discovered the Poetry International blog where I’ve been sharing some of the Speechless moments, and she was like, “HEY! Someone’s been posting our photos on this blog! I wonder who’s doing these!”

And I was like, uhm, “me?”


lost in translation

November 3, 2008 by

Here’s an appropriate one for this week, when one is cruelly aware of the narrow limitations within which we all operate. The story of the Tower of Babel really is a tragedy.

The Welsh text on this sign in Swansea – which apparently arrived back with some speed when the sign guys emailed their text to the translator – begins: “I am not in the office at the moment…”

Clips from Opener

November 3, 2008 by

Here are some videos and audio of the night (24th October, Poetry Opener). A few poems read by Street geniuses and Reem Kelani, a solo by Bruno Heinen, and Reem getting her mic fixed, while she was onset. 😀 Enjoy!


November 3, 2008 by





In the month of July I had the occasion to attend the launch of the Pan African Literary Forum (PALF) in Accra, Ghana, which is a new player in the international literary movement. 

PALF was founded in 2006 by a group of writers and educators from the continent and the Diaspora.  These writers and educators believed that they could make a difference by starting an international organisation to help African writers and those of African descent worldwide with training resources, publication, marketing and representation. PALF has its aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings in the writings and activism of W.E. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Frantnz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, and the many others who partnered to see that African and Caribbean writers were published, and furthered the struggle for democratic representation for African people worldwide. Also of concern to PALF is the historical under-representation and marginalisation of African and African Diaspora writers in the global literary community.  The organisers announced that in the future PALF will host a series of annual conferences, and students will engage with established writers and literary professionals in a series of workshops, seminars and discussions uniquely focussed on both issues of craft (the art of writing well) and literary professionalism (the business of getting published) to provide developing writers with the extra push they need to achieve publication.  Conferences will also feature excursions to historical sites, artistic events and informal gatherings, all designed to promote cross cultural dialogue.

The key note address was given by South African Poet Laureate, Professor Willie Kgositsile, who is also the Special Advisor to South African Minister of Arts and Culture, Dr. Z. Pallo Jordan. In his address, amongst many other issues, he bemoaned the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa against foreigners, and concluded with readings from some of his poetry, which were well received by the audience.

The Executive Director of PALF is Professor Jeffery Renard Allen, who earned a Ph.D in English (Creative Writing) from the University of Illinois, and is currently an instructor in the graduate writing program at the The New School for Social Research in the United States Of America.  He is published in both poetry and prose, and has won several awards for his books, amongst which are the Whiting Writer’s Awards, the Chicago Public Library’s Twenty-First Century Award, and the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction.

This is a more than welcome development for writers on the continent because of its general lack of educational resources (such as the Masters if Fine Arts programmes in creative writing found at many USA and European universities) and limited access to important resources like literary journals, agents, publishing companies and grant making foundations, and also of the fact that non-African readers and writers everywhere have been long deprived of the rich variety of voices and viewpoints to be found within the Pan African Literary traditions.



Eliot the Banker

November 2, 2008 by

TS Eliot was a banker.

This fairly common bit of trivia about one of the 20th century’s foremost English-speaking poets, and the post he held when literature, presumably, wasn’t providing him with enough of a livelihood to pay the bills, popped into my head this week as I was darting around between work, home and Southbank Centre. As it would happen – of course – work at my new job was busier this week than at any prior, and I found myself with barely enough time to attend all the events I wanted, less time to assimilate what I’d experienced, still less time to write about it all.

I make this point not to bemoan my inability to mediate a compromise between finding a way to pay my bills and finding – or perhaps I should say making – the time to write but to note how both reassuring and inspiring it was to witness the diversity of commitment to poetry on display at the festival this week. You could barely have a greater study in contrasts than Sean O’Brien’s very academic lecture on Michael Donaghy versus the boisterous hip hop-inflected rhythms of the performance poetry of Power in the Voice, Joelle Taylor and Breis.

Yet whether it was hearing O’Brien championing the legacy of Donaghy; listening to Al Alvarez, Eva Hoffman and Nick Laird do the same for the work of Zbigniew Herbert; being absolutely bowled over by the eloquence and insightfulness displayed by the guys from St Aloysius School in Power in the Voice (no way was I nearly that articulate or mature at the age of 15); or reading the many thoughtful and brilliant responses of the other bloggers – all told it was the awareness of there being an international community unified in its commitment to poetry, whatever forms and avenues and interests that may take, that was most powerful.

I haven’t found, or made, the time to process all the events of the week, to mull it all over and start shaping into my own narrative. What I mostly just want to do, at least for the moment, is to leave it alone. To let it stand untouched, my response mainly visceral, and to simply utter the banality: I liked it; you should seek it out because you will like it; it was, well, good.

Fantastic Poetry Event

November 2, 2008 by

Well guys, it has been a fantastic poetry event, that has even inspired my poetry:

Poetry. The bible. A metaphoric title
an idol for religion and those stuck in denial,
defile, the story,
of man made in their glory
and pour me a glass of Jesus’ wine.
Where is the swine?
There’s a fine line bewteen an eye for an eye
a bigger line between a truth and a lie,
so take that literally
but take metaphoric,
where we weren’t in history,
where we weren’t at the dawning,
when Adam and Eve was still forming
but we draw false conclusions about the morning.

Poetry Project

November 2, 2008 by

Hello, I couldn’t go to anything during the week, but I did mean to say something about Lemn Sissay’s poetry project, which Swithun and I have been working on. One of the ways in which the project ties in with the festival – and this blog – is that it’s based on a very inclusive and open definition of poetry, and contains much variousness, like so: 

 See the elephant was definitely omnivorous. Why is this writing blue? Help.

Are You Listening? Lemn and only Lemn.

November 2, 2008 by

On Wednesday I went to see Lemn Sissay read from his latest book Listener. Although I’ve seen Lemn read quite a few times in the last four or five years, I realised this was the first event that I’d been to with Lemn & only Lemn on stage. As with any of his performances, you get the tardmark moves: stories about the poems, stopping a poem and starting it again when he feels he can do better, and brave emotional poems next to funny and political poems. This combined with Lemn’s energy really do challange you to listen not only to the poems but to everything in between, the banter between poem and audience, the laughter, and your own thoughts after hearing each poem. And with a longer set, I felt more moved in this reading than when I’ve seen Lemn previously. Particularly by the poems that have come out of his appearances on Radio 4’s Saturday Live programme. One that I’ve never get tired of hearing is Red Sky Dawn, which was written for a pregnant woman trapped in her house during a flood. It’s the second poem in the video.

Motion, Kapovich, Alvi, Margarit

November 2, 2008 by

Last night’s final event of this year’s festival was to celebrate the Arvon International Poetry Prize. Yet another competition I didn’t enter this year! (I can definitively tell you I won’t be winning the National, and I’m not one of the shortlisted poets in this week’s TLS.)

The Arvon International awards ceremony had taken place the night before, on Halloween. Congratulations to the winners:
Classic FM First Prize – Peter Daniels with Shoreditch Orchid
Second Price – Giles Goodland with Serpent
Third Prize – Thomas Lynch with Mr President
Commendation – Alan Stubbs with A Philosophical Provocation
Commendation – Frances Thompson with Letter
Commendation – Frances Leviston with Story

Our little part in their festivities was last night’s excellent reading. Two of the judges, Andrew Motion and Moniza Alvi (what happened to Alice Oswald?) had a chance to invite the international poet of their choice to read with them. It was a marvellous reading. The two invited poets were both wonderful, and the ways in which they were wonderful differed hugely from each other and again from the two judges.

Andrew Motion invited Katia Kapovich, an intense – and intensely Russian – poet now based in the USA, whose book Cossacks and Bandits blew the top of my head off earlier this year. Moniza Alvi invited Joan Margarit, an older Catalan poet whose work is quieter, more overtly emotional, and whose presence is very kindly and rather theatrical. Motion himself read exclusively from the material for his next book which will be out in the spring – all written in the past eighteen months, a period, he says, of prolific creativity. And Alvi read from her childlike Jungle Book-inspired sequence, with its dreamy treatment of the present cultural and natural disasters that await us.

First up: Andrew Motion. There is something I’ve always liked about him. He’s cropped up in different guises over the years, always with a sort of open aspect that makes him feel very real…

His new material, he says, has jolted him out of a several-year rut, or block, which has coincided with the Laureateship. In the past eighteen months he’s written more than in years, and he has a new book, The Cinder Path, due out in the spring. The formal theme seems to be the “found” poem based on someone else’s words – a theme shared with Medbh McGuckian, of course, who read earlier this week.

He started with a poem about Harry Patch, the last surviving person who went over the top in the First War. Harry Patch was 109 when Motion met him (“he’s 110 now”) and amazingly sparky and together. Patch says that “almost everything he remembers of his enormously long life is filtered through the four months he spent in France in the First World War.” He only survived by accident – he was injured, and the war ended while he was recuperating.

Motion moved on to a poem based on an extraordinary book of writings published posthumously by the mother of the author, James Farrer, a 20-year-old bomber pilot in the Second World War: “we only live by death’s negligence” – certainly true of Patch.

A beautiful, atmospheric poem based on the memoir of Marc Chagall’s first wife, Bella Rosenfeld, about their home town, Vitebsk, which Katia Kapovich informs us is pronounced VITebsk. (Of course – if it were stressed on the second syllable, it would be ViTIEBSK. See?

Then Kapovich, who – I’ll be open, here – is the reason I went to this reading. She was nervous, I think. It was a two- or three-poem warm-up, but when she did warm up she was focused and powerful. She read almost entirely from Cossacks and Bandits, in both English and Russian. Her English is heavily-enough accented that it needed a little adjustment to get used to, especially after the mellifluous tones of Motion, and her words are fluently sophisticated and dazzling.

She is uncompromisingly intellectual; and she is so without apparent personal vanity – no make up, for example – that the effect is to put all the emphasis on the poems themselves. There is a no-nonsense seriousness about her, by which I don’t mean portentous or grim – she is a dazzlingly quick and funny talker, with no side at all.

She talked about the “natural alienation” English presents to her, how she had found it very difficult to write about some things in Russian. At 19 she had joined a “little group of provincial dissidents” and, arrested, found herself in a mental asylum. She said, “AFter I had my first dream in English, and cried in it, I realised I can write in it!” The poem she read, Paper Plane to Nowhere, is the first poem she ever wrote in English, and apparently it took about 15 (or did she say 50? It’s quite long) minutes.

I’ve read it before, and admired it, and reviewed it, but by the end of the reading I could feel the tears about to spring. And she finished with a poem about her mother, fleeing Romania as a child, at risk of missing her trains as at each station she passed through she wrote on the wall her name and destination so her father might stand a chance of finding her and her mother. This in response to Motion’s final poem about Vitebsk station.

Moniza Alvi opened the second half with her sequence of poems based on Kipling’s Just so Stories, which of course are all called “How the” something: How The World Split In Two, How The Answers Got Their Questions, How The Countries Slipped Away. Written in the wake of 9/11, these poems seem to me hampered by their deliberate childlikeness (I confess I always found Kipling’s originals patronisingly whimsical as a kid): there is something watercolour-bright about them, but they just don’t address the seriousness and depth of the issues at hand.

A poem inspired by the execution of Saddam Hussain – danger alert! – began with a terrifyingly inappropriate image of a raindrop clinging to a branch, a flower “about to say goodbye to its supporting stem” (I paraphrase from memory, sorry) – and then miraculously recovered when it turned out that the images represented the fragile state of the “trembling” world. Unfortunately the word “hanging” did describe “the tyrant” as well as the raindrop. Still, nimble footwork, and worth finding on paper to see how it works.

I do wonder, though – and I know I’m not the only one – why Moniza Alvi reads her poems as if she were a presenter on Children’s Hour, or a nurse addressing a patient with advanced Alzheimers. We can follow complex sentences, we are not as the raindrop trembling. Chacun à son goût…

I realise there are possibly issues of cultural/poetic tradition here, to do with non-linear thought and the tradition of expression etc; but I’m not sure that simply saying that is a respectful way to deal with someone’s work, as it implies that you shouldn’t expect to get much out of it in the first place. After all, the Chinese poet Yang Lian (who didn’t read this week, but I met him, at last, and so I have been reading/ rereading his Concentric Circles) has engaged very deeply with Pound, filtering his work through Chinese ideas in ways that are new and surprising. And these poems are based on the work of an English writer.

Alvi’s choice of visiting poet suited her immediate, instinctive, emotional approach: the Catalan poet Joan (Think “Juan” but pronouncing the J) Margarit’s work latterly revolves around the life and death of his daughter, Joana, who had a degenerative motor neuron condition and died at the age of 30. (He was born in 1937.) His poems are direct, unfussy, full of arresting imagery.

His reading was very Latin, with sweeping arm gestures, a rising crescendo of voice, and an utter emotional authority. It struck me that such a public delivery style applied to such intimate, personal material is part of the “original language” element of these poems. Here in England it’s not the usual thing to declaim one’s feelings in this way. The Joana poems are filled with intense sadness, of the pure healing kind, and were leavened in this reading by the finale, a short, sweet love poem to his wife. He made almost sweeping bows to the applause, and without realising what I was going to write till I wrote it, I put in my notebook the one word, “theatrical.” In a good way.

I wrote on my own blog before the week began about some interesting interviews he has given, talking about how strange it is writing in his childhood language of Catalan, when Spanish is the “cultural language” – a sort of translation before the poem has even been written. This probably applies to Moniza Alvi, as well. (In fact, I know it sounds stupid, and I’m not in exile as much as simply transplanted, but these issues of cultural identity are not unknown to me, either. When I started writing again, the initial difficulties of reconciling my American and English selves were such that I realised that split may have accounted in part for the years of not writing.)

In all, another wonderful, stimulating evening! A fine night to go out on.


November 1, 2008 by

In May of this year, a few days after the launch of my first book, a short story collection titled DANCING WITH LIFE AND OTHER SHORT STORIES (www.africanbookscollective.com/authors-editors/christophermlalazi), a stage play I co-wrote with a fellow writer, and titled THE CROCODILE OF ZAMBEZI, was banned by our government a day after the opening night, but after the production manager had been abducted by two secret police, taken to the bush out of the city and tortured. 


     PEN American Center – Rapid Action Alert Archive

 – Oct 29

PEN strongly protests attacks against the cast and crew of satirical play The Crocodile of Zambezi and its banning by the police in Bulawayo.
www.pen.org/printpage.php/prmID/1610 – 42k – CachedSimilar pagesNote this


The poem I am posting today, which I wrote last night, has been inspired by this incident, and the power sharing deal between our ruling party and our two main opposition parties, of which we are still waiting the results of, after two long and nerve wracking months…we are fed up!




It is very silent

On the surface

Of the Zambezi River

But deep underneath

A cyclone surges

Threatening to erupt

And engulf us once again

In vengeful crocodiles

And dawn disappearances