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Dear Rwanda: Creating a Poetry Souvenir

Here’s Isy Mead on her upcoming course, Poetry Souvenirs, keepsakes from over there; capturing the foreign without the fake.

An image of Rwanda

Rwanda, or ‘The Land of a Thousand Hills’, has a beauty beyond imagining. It is characterised by ubiquitous hillside terraces and spreading banana groves, by stunning, bright-green tea-fields to the south, and green and gold safari parkland to the east; dense rainforest to the west, and nine awesome volcanoes to the north where mountain gorillas dwell.

I lived and worked in Nyaruguru, a rural region in the south, from 2010 to 2012. Only 16 years had passed since the 1994 genocide. The entire country was soaked in grief. A grief that was palpable: starkly present in every monument, memorial, and socio-political decision, and yet, in day-to-day conversation, unspoken, unaddressed, evaded.

I yearned to write about the experience, to capture it in a way that went beyond a journal, letter, or keepsake. I stayed safe; I wrote about kerosene, sweetcorn, sugarcane, sunflowers, goats, jerry-cans and banana beer. When I first shared my drafts with workshop peers, they found these efforts lacking. I had to, they said, at least give some acknowledgement of the socio-political complexity that seems so inextricably linked to the country. I didn’t feel I had the right, or the knowledge, to do so. And yet, there was always that ever-present, never-present undercurrent that was inescapable in the very experience of living there, even as an outsider. How could I signal the enormity of this with the respect and humility it warranted?  

I wrote the following poem ‘Mosquito Net’ while living in Rwanda:

Work is over, and the giving in
echoed in the great unloosening:
reams of netting let down from the ceiling,
tugged taut and tucked in. The world outside
now muted, misty, unimportant,
distances a primitive fear of things:
spiders, scorpions? And worse, perhaps.
Best make the latticework infinitesimal,
allowing just the weakened air from the hills,
the sound of cow-bells, the fragrance of tea-fields.
Dreams, too, may only pass through
once inspected and softened and censored
and blurred into comfort, entering in
with glazed candlelight, with traces of moon.

This poem began as a sweet tribute to the snug feeling of enclosure rendered by sleeping under a mosquito net. My job in Rwanda was tough and sleep was my refuge. On redrafting, I added ‘and worse, perhaps’ and these three words felt like all that was needed to hint at the wider context. Simon Armitage has described my pamphlet as speaking of Rwanda’s tragedy as ‘a barely spoken backdrop’ (excuse the name-drop). ‘Less is more’ is certainly nowhere more apt than when conjuring topics of which we can only claim ignorance.

In March I will be tutoring a day-long course on Poetry Souvenirs. The aim of the day is to create a souvenir of a place that has made an indelible impression but where we have only passed through, as an outsider. We will go beyond just the five senses; any place is bound to its context, whether geological, social, political, or historical. We will be exploring how to indicate these in the softest of ways, avoiding direct action or judgement.

Over the course of the day, we’ll also bring some sunshine to a British winter. From Somerset House, we will travel to Italy with Tamar Yoseloff, Jamie McKendrick and Jason Allen-Paisant. We will visit Morocco with Mimi Khalvati, Norway with Ruth Padel, and Cambodia with Eoghan Wells.

James Joyce stated that he found it easier to write about Ireland when he was in Italy; that the distance brought him closer to his Dublin. We’ll be looking at ways our experience with a place has some touchpoint with our own lives, even if this is to reflect paradoxically on our own inability to describe the experience. Perhaps when we write about another place, we’ll actually be writing about home.

Isy Mead is teaching our in-person course, Poetry Souvenirs, 1 full-day session, running 10.30am–4.30pm (GMT), on 16 March 2024. This course will take place at Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA. 

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