Blog 2: In which the Welsh literary It girl takes a daytrip to London in the name of char-it-teeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, dahlings!
This week I have mostly been in awe at the power of poetry, not only to move hearts and minds but to move people to take action. Words matter. They can hurt and they can heal, they divide and they unite. Words did not cause the Haiti earthquake but words can help rebuild lives for the survivors. Between 100,000 and 200,000 people are thought to have died in the devastating earthquake which struck the island of Haiti on 12 January. The natural disaster has left approximately 1.5 million people homeless and vulnerable with the hurricane season just a few months away. The Poetry Live fundraiser for the devastated population of Haiti united a humanitarian band of 22 of the country’s leading contemporary poets and a diverse audience of well over 1,000, sardined in rows of fold-up chairs under the ornate dome of Central Hall Westminster on Saturday afternoon.
Led onto the stage by event organiser and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah opened proceedings with the Prime Minister praising Duffy as a ‘visionary humanitarian.’ In a heartfelt speech the Prime Minister thanked the audience for coming together for the people of Haiti: ‘Thank you friends.… Carol Ann, you are not only a great and groundbreaking poet, not just our first but I hope the first of many female Laureates, but also a visionary humanitarian who has summoned together words in the service of deeds.…Today Britain’s greatest poets have come together to relieve the suffering and repair the devastation of the poorest lands and people in the western world.’
After speaking of the damage wreaked on Haiti by the earthquake and three major hurricanes, Brown went on to discuss the purpose of poetry and the Poetry Live fundraiser: ‘For some may ask what the proper role of poets and poetry is when the needs and cries of people are so urgent, so visceral. Because of course, people can’t survive by words alone, or shelter in rhymes, or place their children in the cradle of a sonnet. But the mark of the true poet is the extraordinary extent of your empathy, your calling is to feel and communicate our deepest yearnings and aspirations, to walk in the shoes of others, to show us all that we are not alone.’
In a bid to match up to Duffy’s hard work, the Prime Minister pledged to ship all the corrugated iron in Britain to Haiti to provide much needed shelter for the population before the hurricane season started. Read the whole PM speech transcript
So far, the UK Disasters Emergency Committee’s (DEC) appeal has raised £60m for the country. As a woman who cares and is in a respected position where she can make a difference, Carol Ann Duffy wanted to add to the pot and managed to set up the live poetry event at short notice thanks to help from literary Wales, especially the teams at Poetry Live and Peter Florence’s Hay Festival . Duffy said of the event: ‘We turn to poetry at intense moments in our lives. When we lose people, or are bereaved, we look for a piece of music or poem to read at the funeral, or when we fall in love we turn to poetry, or when children are born. And I think that can happen at moments of public grief too, as well as personal. It is so close to prayer, it is the most intense use of language that there is. It is the perfect art form for public or private grief.’
Around 100 poems were read at the event – long going even for the hardiest of poetry fans. In the interval, as punters queued for the toilets and then, for the refreshments I ran into my new pal, poet and fellow wordy stuff lover Huw Ellis (Dylan Thomas’s grandson): ‘It’s like Poetry Live Aid in there!’ he exclaimed. ‘I couldn’t stop thinking about how I want to be on that stage with poets of that calibre one day.’ Me too, Huw, me too. Elsewhere in the crowd I spotted Seren editor and poet Amy Wack and Nick Fisk, editor of Cardiff’s literary magazine Squareproving I was not alone in thinking this was an event worth travelling for. Or, as Fisk put it, ‘When else will you get this number of respected poets on one stage at one time for such an affordable price?’
Subject matters repeated with some poets trying to empathise with those that have lost in Haiti by sharing poems relating to a grief, whether personal or collective. Thus Moniza Alvi read from her series of works relating to 9/11 (‘How The World Split In Two’) while others read works commemorating loved ones lost. Poetry pinup Owen Sheers choosing ‘Harvest’ written in memory of his great aunt, and Christopher Reid read from his Costa-winning collection A Scattering written to commemorate his late wife. Gillian Clarke and Elaine Feinstein had both written new poems about the disaster, which they read at the event. Gillian thanked the audience for coming together at a time when everyone’s hearts were breaking and many knew not what to do, remarking, ‘When we read in this hall usually, it is full of teenagers who whoop and whistle after our performances. Why are you just clapping?’ Some laughter and whooping ensued. Feinstein also chose to read another favourite of hers, ‘Wheelchair’ to honour the resilience of Haitians. These poems of grief and loss and the lament of Haiti were softened from time to time by jester moments – entertaining lighter performances including folk recorder-player John Sampson doing Mozart, Liverpool poets Roger McGough and Brian Patten tickling some laughs, the wonderful Jo Shapcott’s poem about urinating – ‘Piss Flower’ – and the ever charismatic Guyanan John Agard who demanded audience participation to chant along with his ‘Alternative Anthem, the poem that pokes fun at the Brit’s way of dealing with a crisis: “Put the kettle on/ Put the kettle on/ It is the British answer/ to Armageddon.”
Thankfully for Haiti, on Saturday poetry was our chosen answer instead. A dazzling Duffy, whose sparkling cardigan and necklace flashed glittered hope around the hall, rounded off the performances. Beginning with ‘Do you all need a stiff drink?’ – ‘YES!’ –Duffy quipped: ‘I was pleased to hear Gordon Brown say that he will be shipping all our corrugated iron to Haiti, I hope he remembers to take the lead from Blair’s roof.’ Finally we all did as Carol Ann Duffy asked. and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and bought more poetry books – all profits to Haiti – before our work there was done and Huw Ellis (and his Dad) invited yours truly to The Welsh Club. After a poetry marathon Duffy was right, a stiff drink was certainly in order.
PS. Talking poetry marathons, as a fundraiser for the annual fringe Poetry Jamboree at Hay Festival the poets John Goodby, Lyndon Davies and I are organising a 24-hour sponsored poetry marathon at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea on 23 April 2010 (Shakespeare’s Birthday). Interested parties should email me for more details of how to attend, donate or get involved: firstname.lastname@example.org